The very first bill that Rep. Jim Hawkins submitted — of the 25 he’s already sponsoring in the state’s new legislative session — he did not write. That’s not so unusual, but what’s strange is that it was written by high schoolers. 

For the second year in a row, a network of student organizations is proposing new learning standards that integrate climate science and civics into existing classes, such as biology and history. Hawkins, a retired math teacher now representing a slice of Attleboro in the statehouse, agreed to sponsor it. 

“For them to go through the trouble of writing this legislation and submitting it,” Hawkins said, “was exciting, and speaks very well for the future of this country.”

The students said their goal is to make the school experience more relevant to the biggest issue in their lives, and then to complement that with solutions-oriented civic engagement.

“Every day I sit in a classroom and I learn about many things. And never is one of those things actually, ‘let’s talk about solving the greatest problem that your generation will face,’” said Sara Karp, 15, one of the principal contributors to the re-written legislation, after a first attempt failed to make it out of sub-committees last year. 

“We are doing an injustice to students across Massachusetts and across the country,” Sara said, “by not equipping them with skills and knowledge to actually understand how to solve big problems.”

In an exclusive podcast, student organizers share their experiences, motivations, and challenges when writing this bill.

Find this podcast and more in the multimedia section

Sara and others have worked to gather what they call “adult support” for their bill, winning endorsements from teacher’s unions and nonprofits while still lobbying more legislators. 

Rep. Hawkins wasn’t surprised by the support that students found. “I don’t think students realize how powerful their voice is,” he said. “Adults will listen to students out of politeness in a way they won’t listen to anybody else.”

The students said they don’t see their approach as symbolic, or even political. “We’re aiming to teach youth how they can do something about it,” said Jonathan Lan, 16, a student from Weston High School who helped write the bill.

And research backs them up that education is one of the most effective strategies for carbon reduction. One study followed students after a single semester of college-level environmental science, and (by tracking behavioral changes) found that climate education could lead to greater carbon reductions than electric vehicles, offshore wind, and even afforestation over a 30-year span.

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The problems of climate change are no longer theoretical within schools, either. Hotter school buildings, caused by a combination of warming temperatures and unequal access to air conditioning, have been shown to affect student achievement

In the American Economic Journal, authors found that “a 1°F hotter school year reduces that year’s learning by 1 percent.” And that “hot school days disproportionately impact minority students, accounting for roughly 5 percent of the racial achievement gap.”

And Eben Bein, who’s helped organize the student efforts at Our Climate, a nonprofit group, estimated that fewer than 20% of the students involved in the bill drafting were from low-income families.

“As it’s set up right now, school competes with rather than supports the longevity of youth [civic and political] engagement,” Bein said. 

Bein told the story of one student testifying before legislators for the previous version of this bill; that student “literally stepped out from class to talk to the education committee” over a video-conferencing app. 

“To me that is the story,” Bein said. “Young people are so passionate and visionary that they are finding a way for this idea to build its own institutional power despite enormous obstacles.”

The unequal effects of climate change are also mirrored in unequal access to education about the climate. Justin Brown, a fourth-grade teacher in Brookline, says that currently only teachers in wealthy, well-resourced schools have the bandwidth to fully address climate change. 

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Brown, who’s active in the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), was one of the adult partners who received a call to support the students’ bill. Initially, he was careful about bringing up the issue in what he calls an “occupation-based organization,” in which people might not all agree on climate change. 

But he found plenty of support. 

“I have not met any educators who are not interested in joining the climate movement or feeling like they have some role to play in ensuring the future of the students that we teach,” Brown said. 

Brown said that there could be some misconceptions about the bill: for example, that it would pile onto the backs of “overworked educators.” But after learning about the bill, he said, “that’s not how this would work.”

A learning standard doesn’t mandate how Brown can teach, but it describes what his students should know by the end of the year, without telling him how to get there. 

Instead of piling on, standards would lead his district to come up with their own instructional plan and to purchase resources, taking some of the burden off him and other teachers.

In addition, it would connect students’ experiences across grade levels, “hitting upon the same themes, but in increasingly cognitively demanding ways,” Brown said. 

For example, when teaching about botany — as he already does — Brown would know what climate knowledge students have from prior grade levels, and he’d be able to orient his lessons toward what they’ll learn in future grades. 

There are current science standards addressing climate change, but Brown says “they’re pretty thin. Massachusetts is definitely not on the forefront.” The current standards outline that the science of climate change is not expected to be assessed before eighth grade.  

The forefront has been in New Jersey, where a similar law for interdisciplinary climate standards now teaches students about the world’s climate at all grade levels. There hasn’t been much pushback to this law, the Washington Post reported, as it was developed to teach developmentally appropriate content.

“I have not met any educators who are not interested in joining the climate movement or feeling like they have some role to play in ensuring the future of the students that we teach.”

Justin Brown, fourth grade teacher

For example, one science standard for Kindergarteners reads: “Living things need water, air, and resources from the land, and they live in places that have the things they need. Humans use natural resources for everything they do.” There are also standards for social studies, world languages, computer classes, and almost all subjects. 

The New Jersey bill has been a model for the students in Massachusetts, who propose a similar interdisciplinary approach in their bill

“If we’re teaching kids the way we taught them decades ago, then we’re failing them,” said Sara Ross, another adult partner that the students contacted. “Every class of kids we graduate from our public schools without this is a failure.”

Ross, who runs the Massachusetts sector of a nonprofit mostly dedicated to greening school infrastructure, described Massachusetts as a leader in education. “If we want to hold on to that position, it’s urgent that our education reflects this existential challenge that the next generation is facing.” Her organization, UndauntedK12, has given its official support to the bill.

There’s still a long way to go. The bill “will be very well vetted by the time we vote on it,” said Rep. Hawkins. “It’s a long process — and should be — because it will become law.”

To continue supporting this cause (and others they’re pursuing, like improving air quality) the students are planning to meet with legislators in February. 

“I see that change is possible,” said Jonathan, one of the student authors. “And I think in general I do have hope about the fight against climate change.”

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1 Comment

  1. Great article – our future depends on young students advocating for and taking action for our environment. Thanks, Colin!

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